Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Love and other feelings

Love is generally presented as a reaction. It is styled in books and films as an unexpected, uncontrollable thing that just happens in response to one special person. As someone who loves plurally, I’ve always found that part of our stories about love rather difficult. And of course what just happens mysteriously can also be assumed to just go away, equally mysteriously. If we make ourselves powerless in face of it, can’t control it, can’t control ourselves… very little good comes of this.

Attraction can be very sudden – a simple animal desire based on the appearance of the other person. I chalk these up as entertaining but have never acted on it. Desire can be fleeting, and isn’t reliable. I have always been more interested in what a person has going on inside them than how they look.

It’s usually what people do that affects me – what they create, how they think, what they share of themselves, what I can do with them. Love, in all its various shapes and forms can take root in this kind of soil.

Then there are the others, the remarkable, life altering love affairs that have shaped me, and continue to do so. The people whose fingerprints remain on my soul. Looking at those relationships I am conscious of how important deliberate choice has been – mine and theirs. The choice to be vulnerable, to offer something of self, to care, to be open to care in return. Stepping deliberately into more involved ways of relating. Undertaking to love.

The most important love affairs in my life haven’t been accidents of attraction. They’ve been choices. Not just the choice to have a go, but the day by day choices about how I deploy my time and energy, what I pay attention to and what I choose to give. It isn’t something I’ve thought about in quite these terms before, though. I do not belong in the conventional narrative in which love is an accident. Love is something I choose to experience and bestow, and that people dealing with me choose to accept or reject.


Struggling with mental health

I wrote this in the middle of the night recently, crying, unable to sleep, overwhelmed with panic and despair. The first version went up on Facebook. I’m mostly trying to out a brave face onto my online presence – easy to hide behind a screen. But, I doubt I’m the only one feeling this way and I think it needs talking about.

TW – Suicide issues.

Like a lot of people, I was suffering from anxiety and depression before the virus. There has never been much help available for us, and now there will be less.

Many of us have lost key things that were keeping us going. We may express hurt over that online – the loss of the gym, the dance class, the pub time, the live music – we may not be being super selfish when we express distress. We may be talking about the things that helped us stay alive. Depression also kills people. Knocking people back for expressing distress or difficult, really doesn’t help.

It’s really hard for me, reading people saying ‘stay in’ and ‘don’t see anyone’ with a clear message that anything other than total isolation makes you a terrible person. I’m really struggling with feeling like a terrible person, I expect I’m not alone. I don’t do much going out at the moment, and I’m being careful and have been for weeks. But I’m also not sleeping, and crying a lot, and terrified of being trapped in this flat and what that would do to my already poor mental health.

Tom has some serious anxiety issues and for him, being trapped in a building is deeply problematic.

So maybe don’t share the memes about how all you have to do is sit on the couch, it isn’t that hard. For some of us, isolation could well be a death sentence.

And yes, lots of anxiety about how selfish I am in not wanting to end up suicidal. I’ve been through periods of wanting to kill myself before now, I’m fighting not to go back there. I’m seeing people online hoping the virus will take them quickly because they’ve already lost the will to live. I see the same thoughts creeping in with me. ‘Selfish’ can be something of a trigger term for me and again I suspect I’m not alone. I think people who kill themselves often do so because they think its the best thing they can do for the people around them. What else is there, if the things you do to try and stay alive are deemed selfish?

I know many of you are new to massive anxiety, and you just want everyone else to be more sensible so you and your loved ones are safe. Of course you want that. But some of us were only ever holding on by our fingertips, and now things are worse. Please, when you go online to vent your fear, consider how it might sound to someone who is having a mental breakdown. Someone – for example – for whom going outside for a run, or a walk is the one tool they have left to manage their failing mental health.

Your suicidal friend probably won’t tell you how they feel because that’s part of how this illness plays out. They won’t ask for help, especially not if what they need is time with another human being. You won’t know who is in trouble, most likely. Yes, isolation saves lives. Kindness also saves lives, and your depressed friends need to know that their lives matter too and that they are not failing as human beings for wanting or needing things that are difficult at the moment.


Working with Fear

Fear is a difficult emotion to experience, and is harder to work with. All too often, what we do with fear is to take it out on someone else in the form of anger. When you do this, you get a brief sense of having power and being in control. This can be uplifting in the short term because fear is usually underpinned by a loss of power, or the expectation of powerlessness. However, venting it as anger on whoever is to hand is a quick route to more stress and less emotional support. It also doesn’t solve the original problem.

Unprocessed fear can also turn inwards, and become an anger we take out on ourselves. Self-blame, shame, obsessing over what we can’t change, obsessing over the risks and spiralling into every more despairing thought patterns doesn’t really solve anything either.

Our bodies do a very short term fear response when we need to get out of situations. Fear should kick in our flight/fight responses to get us out of trouble. When we’re dealing with something other than immediate, physical danger, it needs a bit more thought. However unattractive a prospect it may seem to be, the best thing to do with fear is sit down quietly with it and examine it.

Fear is most often underpinned by love and pre-emptive grief. That love may be directed towards ourselves – we are afraid of suffering or dying. We are afraid of what we may lose that we value. We fear for that which we love – be that people, landscapes, wildlife, cultural features… Conscious that we are threatened with loss, we can enter into pre-emptive grief processes. We can go through grief stages over things and people that are not yet lost to us but probably will be. Sometimes this can turn out to be a useful coping mechanism, sometimes it brings the reason for fear into sharper focus.

I think the best way to deal with fear is to get to grips with what you are afraid of losing. What you’ll find there is what matters to you. Your love. And if at first glance what you find seems selfish and all about you, then it is simply your love for your own life and experience that you are afraid of losing.

Fear isn’t a simple thing. It isn’t a ‘negative’ emotion to try and avoid. It can teach us about what matters most. It can show us the truth of what we value. It’s easy to lose your real values under layers of social conditioning, but fear can cut through that bullshit at a terrifying pace to tell you what is most important, least bearable and in that insight, is the scope to find your heart.

In the end, we all die, we all lose everything. We’re all on that trajectory together and there’s not much point being afraid of our unavoidable destination. But along the way, we can take care of what we love, make the most of it, cherish it while we can.


If you respond by freezing

We normally talk about fear in terms of flight or fight responses. There are a lot of things we have evolved to deal with either by trying to punch them or trying to run away. However, in some circumstances, there’s a third response available – freezing. It’s less talked about and can be more confusing. Terrible things are happening and you just shut down, and do nothing.

Freezing is what we do when we’re overwhelmed. It’s a response to situations in which there is nothing we can physically fight off, and nowhere to run to. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people are experiencing freeze in response to the virus.

If you can’t focus your mind, can’t figure out what to do, are panic-scrolling on Twitter, half asleep all the time or feeling distanced from everything, this is the process you are in. Rest, time and distraction will help you move past it. This is a natural and reasonable response. It may feel confusing right now, but the answer is to be gentle with yourself and wait it out.

People who have already experienced trauma can find they are prone to freezing responses. Brutal lessons about your own powerlessness will do this to a person.

Hopefully there is a lesson we can all learn here for the longer term. Freezing is a normal response to being powerless. It is why many victims of violence, and especially of rape, do not fight back or manage to escape. Sometimes our bodies just shut down – it can have a protective function, helping us mentally distance ourselves from traumatic things. Understanding how this works will help us be more compassionate with ourselves, and with each other.


Cure or Management?

There are many conditions that cannot be cured. For every one of those conditions, there are supposed miracle interventions, that people will insist can save you. It’s particularly bad around mental health because rather a lot of people believe that medication will cure you of depression and anxiety. For many of us, it doesn’t. Management is kinder, more realistic and more useful than chasing after a fantasy cure, often. For most people, medication doesn’t cure depression, it’s just a tool to manage symptoms.

I have been on the wrong end of this. I’ve let myself believe that if only I tried harder, ate better, exercised more and worked on myself, that I could beat depression. And then every time it’s come back, I’ve felt like a failure on top of everything else. I’ve watched friends not being cured by meds. I’m also aware of numerous friends for whom the meds are a good tool to help manage things. They aren’t fixed, but they are able to live with their illness.

The idea of a cure can be a way of making a sufferer responsible. If a cure exists, and you aren’t doing everything you can to find it, are you really that ill? Are you being responsible around your illness? Never mind that chasing fantasy cures is exhausting and demoralising. Never mind that help to deal with ongoing problems would be more useful. Focusing on finding a cure can make it harder to deal with what’s really going on, and can add to feelings of guilt and despair. No one’s mental health is improved in this way.

If suffering is somehow the fault of the person experiencing it, then well onlookers need not worry – it won’t happen to them. Belief in cures can be part of what keeps well people feeling safe in face of other people’s distress. Confident that they would get out there and be cured, they don’t have to empathise with suffering, do anything to help, or even treat the sufferer kindly. It is a cruel way of relating to illness.

Grasping that I may never fully get over depression and anxiety was a powerful moment for me. It came up when reading Down Days by Craig Hallam. He talked about not expecting to ever truly recover, and a weight lifted from me. Perhaps not getting better is not some failure – moral or effort based – on my part. Perhaps I do not owe it to anyone else to become well. Perhaps focusing on what I can do to be as functional as possible is wiser. If I treat this as something I will have to navigate for the long term, perhaps I can be more patient, kinder to myself and more comfortable from day to day. The idea of a permanent fix has distorted my sense of what I’m dealing with. Let that go, and I can respond to what’s real and consider what’s truly possible.

I’m better than I used to be. I have no doubt that one of the reasons I’m better is that I’ve become less tolerant of people who want to tell me what I should be doing. I’m no longer open to people harassing me because I don’t manage my mental health in the (uninformed) way they think I should. I’m not internalising the voices that tell me I’m a failure for still being ill.


Emotional Processing

I’ve noticed in recent months that there are some emotions I don’t process quickly. This has been true for some time – years certainly. Before that, I think I just didn’t get round to feeling them at all. I don’t tend to become cross or upset in the situation causing it. I can have a rapid response with a panic trigger, but often in the short term with those I just freeze.

It can take me a few days to work out that I feel cross, hurt, upset, unfairly treated, let down and things of that ilk. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with the realisation – I suspect the unconscious parts of my mind are better at processing this. During the figuring out process, I have tended to spend time asking if my response is fair and reasonable. Am I over-reacting? Should I be more understanding of the situation? Is it ok, and is it safe, to express distress?

I’m now questioning that fundamental issue of whether my responses are justifiable. I recognise it comes from times when I would have to justify my emotional responses – usually to someone who was not going to be persuaded of the validity of my feelings.

It’s a significant thing for me to have got to the point of saying I do not have to justify how I feel. I don’t have to explain myself to anyone and I do not need anyone’s permission for my emotional responses. I may need space and distance to feel safe with my own emotions, I’ll give that whatever room it needs. I don’t have to make sense to anyone else. I don’t have to be reasonable. If I feel something as a consequence of my history, it is valid, even if it makes little sense in the context.

With hindsight I can see that not being allowed my own emotional responses cost me a great deal in terms of sense of self. It cost me self-esteem, confidence and feelings of personhood. These experiences taught me to mistrust myself, and to surrender authority to others. To be the kind of person whose emotional responses are preposterous, unfounded, and who needs putting straight about it is to be treated as immature and childish. It is to be invalidated. I would not, I realise, even treat the emotions of a very small child having a tantrum with the same disregard and belittling that’s been shown me in the past.

To feel on your own terms is to be properly a person. To be able to express something of those feelings is a measure of being safe. To have those feelings taken seriously is a measure of being loved, respected and valued.


On finding you’ve triggered someone

What do you do if you find you’ve triggered someone? You’ve done something you probably thought was harmless, or no big deal, and the response is huge, perhaps distressing and impossible to make sense of. Maybe they shut down, or broke down into tears, had a massive panic attack or exhibited other PTSD symptoms. In my experience, this does not reliably go well so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned so far.

You may feel what’s happened is unfair. You did nothing seriously wrong. They are reacting based on something historical that isn’t your fault so why should you have to change your behaviour? With the reaction seeming disproportionate, you may feel they are being ridiculous. This all serves to protect you from having to consider your own behaviour or take responsibility for making changes.

A traumatised person who has been triggered into a response is not well placed to explain to you what just happened. Explainnig requires trust, and you’ve just put them in a very bad place – however innocently. It is worth bearing in mind that these kinds of responses are like people traumatised in war being put back in the trenches by the sounds of fireworks. To have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder you have to have been traumatised.

One of the worst things you can make a trauma survivor do is go over what happened to them. You don’t need to understand what happened to them. You need to care about them and respect them enough to listen to what they need you to do differently. If you care about a person, you’ll do that. If you don’t – then don’t expect them to let you get very close to them.

One of the hardest things in this can be looking at behaviour that is a little bit off. Did you shout at them? Did you touch them without consent? Did you say something that opened the door to a very dark place? Did you make a rape joke, or minimise something that was serious for them? I’ve had several rounds of guys who unexpectedly kissed me and who were not willing to not do that for the sake of my wellbeing. I don’t do well with touch, or with being surprised, and I’ve been panicked by this.

It can be really uncomfortable to consider that behaviour you thought was ok is triggering for someone you thought you cared about. It can be hard undertaking to change how you think and what you do. It can be painful seeing something you thought was innocent related to rape culture, domestic abuse and coercive control. It was just a little thing you did, right? It was just small. You want it to be ok. You want to tell them why they should be ok with what you did… if you want your feelings to matter and their distress to be irrelevant, you are going to keep pushing those trauma buttons. If that seems fair enough to you, and like something a trauma survivor should be ok with… consider that you are not the hero of this story.


If you can choose

It sounds empowering – you can always choose how to think about something. Unfortunately it isn’t true, and putting that idea about can add layers of blame and shame for people who have been damaged by trauma, and by design.

Brainwashing. Conditioning. Gaslighting. These are terms for processes that are undertaken with the intention of controlling how a person thinks about things. Stockholm syndrome is a consequence of experience that impacts on how you think. When people come out of cults, they need de-programming. Depression and anxiety are illness that are fundamentally about not being able to choose your thoughts. These are all familiar terms, and yet the idea that we can all control our thoughts and choose them, all of the time, keeps doing the rounds.

The human mind can be quite fragile. It can be damaged. Your ability to think rationally can be messed with in ways it will take years to recover from. We like to focus on the people who, by dint of remarkable strength, faith, or persistence are able to resist mind-control and keep their thoughts their own. That a person can do something is not evidence that everyone can do it.

To have your mind broken is to lose yourself. You don’t know who you are anymore. You don’t know what you want or need, or how to feel. You can’t make choices, you are frozen and frightened and lost. I’ve been there. I’m a person with a lot of willpower and a decent capacity for reason, and I have had that taken from me and been obliged to re-build it from scratch. I’ve spent a lot of time not being able to control my thoughts or choose what I think and I’ve had a long, hard fight to overcome that.

I don’t have words adequate to express what it means to lose your self in this way. The experience of not being able to control thoughts – of not being safe even inside your own mind – is an awful one. For anyone who was damaged in childhood there may not even be points of reference for knowing what a functional self looks like. It is hard choosing thoughts when you don’t have a range of possible thoughts to draw on in the first place.

If you can choose what to think about a situation, then you are in a position of privilege. Either you’re not going through something that is damaging you, or you are possessed with unusual degrees of inner strength and resilience. While that’s something to celebrate, it isn’t fair or realistic to assume everyone has the same experiences and resources. Like all privilege, it remains largely invisible to the people who enjoy it.


Dealing with night terrors

Anxiety when it comes in the night can be particularly hard to deal with. It may be less troubling than anxiety at times when we’re more visible, but it is also harder to manage. The tired mind isn’t as easy to control. When you’re awake, it is easier to try and reason with your own panicking mind. When awake, strategies can be deployed – be that breathing techniques, or visualisations, or just leaving the building.

In the middle of the night, in your bed attire, with everyone else asleep, or perhaps alone, it is difficult to fight your way out of panic. Waking into panic is especially hard because you get no conscious warning and there is no time to deploy tools or even brace yourself.

If it happens rarely, it’s a hard thing to prepare for as well. If it comes round more often, it pays to develop a plan when you can think about it properly. Decide what you might be going to do – because when you’re sweating with night terrors and barely awake, you’ll have trouble coming up with anything useful.

I find it helps to move. If you just lie there with nothing to distract you, it is easier for the terrors to keep chewing on you. Moving your body can help ground you and if the terror is vague, just the action of getting up and drinking some water can help push it away.

If that’s not enough, I go for distraction. The internet is a great blessing to me at these times, and there’s often a friend or two from some other part of the world online in the wee small hours. Random chats have rescued me on many occasions. I find things to read. If I’m more awake, I might go for a book. There’s no point trying to reason with my brain if I’m tired, but distraction often works.

I give myself an hour. If I can’t get it under control in that time frame, I wake my chap up. I don’t like waking people up, but if the panic is too intense for me to cope with on my own, this is the better call. Sometimes a calm, sane person who can talk you down makes all the difference. In the night, my fears can be incredibly irrational, and I can know they are irrational and still not be able to challenge them. I latch onto small problems and wake up convinced that they are perilous and disastrous and it’s hard getting out of that by myself.

That said, anxiety isn’t utterly irrational even when the focus of it is ridiculous. It troubles me how CBT and other ‘cures’ start from the assumption that you have nothing to fear and need to stop being silly. Anxiety exists either because of something historical that still haunts you, or something contemporary that threatens you, or both. Taking it seriously and trying to put it into perspective is more productive than dismissing it. If the superficial anxiety seems ridiculous, it could be because something else is underlying it. It can also be hormonal, and I know much of what I’m experiencing relates to the menopause. This too is an entirely real experience that needs taking seriously, even if it is manifesting as irrational panic. It seems to come from excess stress in my waking life, even if the rest of the time I feel like I’m on top of it.

If we lived in a kinder culture, with gentler working practices, this would all be so much easier to deal with. The sleepless night would not lead to the terrible day, and that in turn would give us less to fear.


Why we don’t always believe victims

It would seem a no-brainer, if you are a decent human being, that you would listen to and believe people who report abuse and bullying. But we don’t, and it is important to look at why if that’s ever going to change.

Bullies and abusers don’t go along with being called out. They deny everything, or they tell you that they are the real victim and the person who first clamed victimhood is really the bully. There are bullies who, as part of their routine, accuse their victims of attacking them. If two people are claiming to be victims of each other, the idea of always believing the victim doesn’t stand up very well, because you may not know who it is. More thoughts on this over here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2018/07/28/calling-out-abusers/

Most of us have a morality that depends to some degree on relationship. So we tend to believe the people we care about and disbelieve the people we don’t know or care about if that threatens someone we like. We also don’t want to believe that we love someone abusive, so we look for reasons to explain away claims of abusive behaviour.

Victim blaming is widespread. Many of us have internalised some of that.

Abusers know what they are doing, and around people who are not their victims, they act in ways that hide this. We are persuaded because they were always so nice to us. In public, they may have seemed like exemplary spouses and parents. They may tell us, with great love and concern how worried they are about the poor mental health and strange beliefs of their victim. We may sympathise, and go on to not believe the victim when they confide in us.

Victims are usually in distress. If they’ve suffered gaslighting, been blamed and made responsible, they may feel it is all their fault. If the bully has persuaded the victim that the victim is the bully, you’re going to have a hard time figuring out what to believe. I am inclined to take care of people who are afraid and distressed and seeking safety. I tend to disbelieve people who are angry and demanding retribution. I look at the power balances. I also figure, if I get this wrong, the angry person is probably better resourced to take care of themselves. It’s not foolproof. Nothing is.

An un-nuanced approach that goes ‘I always believe victims’ can be deeply threatening if you are someone whose abuser has cast them in the role of the bully. If you have had your reality dismantled in this way, this is such a hard thing to deal with. For a long time, I believed myself to be an awful person, deserving of any punishment that came my way. For some years now, I’ve lived in a strange, inbetween place where some days I think I have experienced gaslighting in the past, and some days I think I’m an awful person who deserves everything they get. On the good days, I dare to think I might get over having been made responsible in this way. I’m able to write this because today is a good day.

On a bad day, a flat statement about always believing victims can, and has panicked me. I think about the people (there were several) who were so loud and confident about being my victims, and how knocked down and powerless I felt in face of them. There is always the fear one of them will come back for another go and that they will be believed, and I will not. And the fear that no matter how hard I try, I am so inherently awful that I can only cause harm. On a good day, I think that’s the gaslighting impacting on me.

And I also know that for some people, any experience of being said no to, any criticism, any less than perfectly positive feedback counts as an attack. I know that several of the people in my history experienced me as a terrible person because I couldn’t give them what they needed. I did not prove kind, patient, generous, forgiving, understanding and co-operative enough for them and they experienced that insufficiency as abusive. They’re not making it up, it was their experience of me, and some of them I have seen go through similar issues with other people.

Abuse and bullying are really complicated. A superficial response that says ‘I will always believe victims’ and doesn’t dig into the mechanics and specifics of anything it encounters, is not a magic solution to the woes of the world.